The United Nations has been called upon to investigate recent claims that Myanmar has committed genocide against Rohingya Muslims. What are the expected repercussions if the allegations are found to be true?
According to a recent assessment made by Yale’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, there is “strong evidence” of a genocide being committed against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar government.
The Clinic spent eight months analysing documents and testimonies provided by Al Jazeera, Fortify Rights, the Southeast Asian human rights organisation, the United Nations, and documents obtained from the Myanmar government.
The purpose of the assessment was to determine whether the abuses being carried out against the Rohingya satisfied the international criteria for genocide.
Who are Rohingya Muslims?
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority living in Myanmar. The Myanmar government does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens, and long standing tensions with the Buddhist Rakhine community have caused the Rohingya to suffer from various forms of discrimination.
In addition to a denied right to citizenship, the Rohingya have limited access to education or medical care, and are subject to travel restrictions and limits on working outside confined areas.
Whilst the Rohingya crisis has been ongoing for a number of years, it has been exacerbated since 2012, when widespread violence in the Rakhine state in Myanmar left approximately 140,000 Rohingya displaced.
Since being displaced, the Rohingya live in government-designated internment camps, with little access even to basic resources such as food.
The Rohingya crisis was brought to international attention in June 2015, when tens of thousands of Rohingya attempted to flee Myanmar, by attempting the perilous journey by boat to neighbouring Southeast Asian states.
The legal elements of genocide
The analysis released by the Lowenstein Clinic addresses three legal elements of genocide. First, it assesses whether the Rohingya are a protected group under the terms of the Genocide Convention.
Second, it assesses whether any of the acts covered by the Convention’s definition of genocide have been committed.
Third, it assesses whether these acts were performed with the intent to destroy the Rohingya “in whole or in part.”
The report found that four acts set out in the Genocide Convention had been committed: killing members of the Rohingya, committing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the Rohingya, inflicting conditions to destroy the Rohingya, and preventing births within the group.
The team concluded that “the available evidence strongly suggests that each of the three elements of genocide have been present in the overall situation of Rohingya in Rakhine State.”
The clinic identified the Myanmar police and army as being responsible for acts that could constitute genocide.
According to Al Jazeera, the Myanmar government has been triggering communal violence for political gain by using hate speech to incite anti-Muslim riots, and to marginalise and segregate the Muslim population in Myanmar.
One member of the Lowenstein team stated that the situation in Rakhine state could be understood as ethnic cleansing. In this context, “ethnic cleansing becomes genocide when the efforts to remove a population aim at the group’s destruction.”
Calls for a UN investigation
The Lowenstein Clinic report recommends that the United Nations adopt a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry on the human rights situation in Myanmar.
The report suggests that the Human Rights Council would be an ideal body for establishing such a Commission. The Commission should be “tasked with establishing the facts and circumstances that, taken as a whole, may indicate that genocide has occurred or is occurring.”
The Commission should also be tasked with identifying the perpetrators.
The Myanmar government has recently stated that it “rejects the accusation completely.” Myanmar’s Minister of Information stated that the team had made the report “intentionally to make the situation complicated in Rakhine State” as elections approach.
It has not yet been determined whether the UN will undertake an investigation into the genocide claims. However, on the weight of the evidence presented in the Lowenstein report, it is difficult to conceive that it won’t.
What are the potential repercussions for Myanmar?
In recent years, Myanmar has striven to present itself as a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic country. To this end, it has undergone a number of political and economic reforms.
If Myanmar fails to seriously address the international community’s concerns regarding the Rohingya, the events will have a devastating effect on its international standing and its economic growth.
Myanmar’s economy grew at 8.5 percent in 2014/15. This was in large part due to economic reforms that have supported consumer and investor confidence. Undoubtedly, this confidence will be badly affected by the Lowenstein report.
It is vital that the Myanmar government refrain from treating the Rohingya crisis as an internal matter. Instead, it must comply with any potential United Nations commission of inquiry. This will include full, frank disclosure, and a transparent investigation into the role of the police and army with respect to the Rohingya in the Rakhine State.
This will signify that Myanmar takes human rights seriously, and is ready to become a responsible member of the international community.